Seventy-five adults who reported witnessing at least 1 animal being killed inhumanely participated in a study of 5 measures of empathy from the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) (Davis, 1980) and the Animal Attitude Scale (AAS) (Herzog, Betchart, & Pittman, 1991): Perspective Taking (PT), Fantasy (FS), Emotional Concern (EC), Personal Distress (PD), and Animal Attitudes (AA). Females showed greater sensitivity (4 of 5 scales) on a 2-way MANOVA with Sex (male, female) and Witnessing Killing (never, once, multiple) as independent variables. Individuals who witnessed multiple killings were higher on PT and lower on PD scales. Lower PD for those who witnessed multiple killings suggests hardening or habituation related to exposure. Alternatively, they may lack resistance to involvement in situations leading to animal violence. Higher PT scores related to multiple killings may indicate a natural leaning toward the cognitive—rather than affective—or dissociation between cognitive and affective. A shift to the cognitive, as a defense mechanism, suggests a dissociation hypothesis. Implications extend to the need for refined research in the developmental sequence of animal abuse and empathy, and humane education.
This study draws on diverse research results from investigating the relationship between experiences with nonhuman animal abuse and empathy. We examined whether 108 men with a history of animal abuse showed differences between cognitive (perspective-taking) and affective (emotional) empathy. The effects related to three levels (never, once, multiple times) of witnessing the killing of animals and witnessing the torture of animals. Individuals who witnessed abuse were higher in cognitive empathy than affective empathy. This supports previous findings for a “dissociation hypothesis,” which suggests exposure to animal abuse may mediate between emotional and cognitive empathy. Therefore, it may be beneficial for an individual to have the ability to detach cognitive from emotional empathy—particularly those in careers related to animal welfare and veterinary care. An absence of emotional empathy may also lead to a callous or dismissive attitude to people in need. We sought an appropriate balance of the two.